Google’s parent company, Alphabet, recently announced that it would lay off around 12,000 people, 6 percent of its work force. Employees who were let go, some of whom had worked for the company for decades, got the news in their inbox. “It’s hard for me to believe that after 20 years at #Google I unexpectedly find out about my last day via an email,” a Google engineer, Jeremy Joslin, tweeted. “What a slap in the face.”
That sting is becoming an all-too-common sensation. In the last few years, tens of thousands of people have been laid off by email at tech and digital media companies including Twitter, Amazon, Meta and Vox. The backlash from affected employees has been swift.
Employees at a tech company called PagerDuty received notices last week that set a new low bar for a layoff announcement, starting off with a few hundred words of cheery blather and rounding out with a Martin Luther King Jr. quotation about overcoming adversity.
It’s not just tech and media. Companies in a range of industries claim this is the only efficient way to do a lot of layoffs. Informing workers personally is too complicated, they say — and too risky, as people might use their access to internal systems to perform acts of sabotage. (These layoff emails are often sent to employees’ personal email; by the time they check it, they’ve been locked out of all their employer’s own platforms.)
As someone who’s managed people in newsrooms and digital start-ups and has hired and fired people in various capacities for the last 21 years, I think this approach is not just cruel but unnecessary. It’s reasonable to terminate access to company systems, but delivering the news with no personal human contact serves only one purpose: letting managers off the hook. It ensures they will not have to face the shock and devastation that people feel when they lose their livelihoods. It also ensures the managers won’t have to weather any direct criticism about the poor leadership that brought everyone to that point.
Legally, companies have plenty of recourse if laid-off employees steal trade secrets or sabotage systems, and employees who need to find new jobs have little incentive to behave criminally, no matter how upset they may be. But even so, concerns about liability shouldn’t preclude treating employees like human beings.
Some defenders of the practice argue that there’s simply no way to coordinate these things at such large scales, but that, too, rings hollow. There is no rule that all layoffs have to happen simultaneously. If managers interact directly with their workers in everyday business, there’s no reason to believe that would suddenly be impossible when it’s time to lay them off.
The first time I had to fire someone, I was 25, and it was for cause. In theory firing people because they’re underperforming or insubordinate should be easier than when they’re doing a good job and the company simply can’t sustain its payroll, but this time it wasn’t. I felt nauseated going into the meeting, and when the person I was firing began tearing up in the middle of the conversation, I had no idea what to do. I stammered and apologized, and by the end of the meeting, the person I was firing was comforting me.
Since then I’ve hired and trained first-time managers, and taught them how to do this in a way that respects the dignity of the people who are losing their job: Look people in the eye. Answer questions. If someone is upset, show some sympathy. Treat people the way we ourselves would wish to be treated. At the very least this demands an actual human conversation. It is more effort than sending a platitude-laden mass email, but it demonstrates respect.
In the case of good employees who are being let go through no fault of their own, those conversations benefit the employer, too, because people remember how they’re treated in their lowest moments — and word spreads fast. Future hiring prospects will be reading all about it on Twitter or Glassdoor. In a tight labor market, a company’s cruelty can leave a lasting stain on its reputation.
Perhaps the most appalling aspect of termination by email is the asymmetry between what corporations expect of their workers and how they treat them in return. Employees in all kinds of jobs are routinely pressed to give the maximum that they can. In low-wage service jobs that can mean insane, unpredictable hours with no benefits. At higher-paying tech jobs it can mean sacrificing any semblance of a life outside of the office, a requirement that is often justified by high-minded rhetoric about changing the world or the promise of some pot-of-gold reward in an unspecified future.
The expectation that an employee give at least two weeks notice and help with transition is rooted in a sense that workers owe their employers something more than just their labor: stability, continuity, maybe even gratitude for the compensation they’ve earned.
But when it’s the company that chooses to end the relationship, there is often no such requirement. The same people whose labor helped build the company get suddenly recoded as potential criminals who might steal anything that’s not nailed down.
At Twitter, where Elon Musk has embraced managerial incompetence as if it’s an emerging art form that requires great creativity, employees were asked to sign a pledge to be “hard core,” working even longer hours and sleeping in the office if necessary. Unsurprisingly, many instead decided to preserve their family lives and self-respect.
For them, this was just the first indignity. Many terminated employees found that their severance offers didn’t materialize for months — and some were called back to work when it turned out the site couldn’t run without them. One employee who early on went to LinkedIn to write “Elon’s my new boss and I’m stoked!” reportedly didn’t make it through the first round of layoffs.
Approval of unions is already at 71 percent. Dehumanizing workers like this is accelerating the trend. Once unthinkable, unionization at large tech companies now seems all but inevitable.
Treating employees as if they’re disposable units who can simply be unsubscribed to ultimately endangers a company’s own interests. It seems mistreated workers know their value, even if employers — as they are increasingly prone to demonstrate — do not.
Elizabeth Spiers, a contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and digital media strategist. She was the editor in chief of The New York Observer and the founding editor of Gawker.
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